It was already a hard year for Mitch McConnell, having a public late-life crisis after being returned to minority status, and seeing his wife, the former transportation secretary, scrutinized for using their official positions to help a shipping company her family owns. Then Roy Blunt went and became the fifth GOP senator to retire.
Blunt cited his 23 years in the Capitol for the surprise retirement, not fear of the former social media influencer who resides at Mar-a-Lago. Blunt, an affable insider married to an affable lobbyist for Kraft, had done what it takes to avoid a Trump-inspired revenge primary: He voted not to impeach Trump (twice) and this week voted against the signature legislation of the new president who the former president still won’t acknowledge is living in the White House. You have to keep paying up. What you haven't done for Trump lately can kill you.
With Blunt’s retirement, Democrats' chances of increasing their slim Senate majority and depriving McConnell of regaining his went up. It still won’t be easy. Missouri is Trump country, and Republicans won the seat of former Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2018, electing up-and-coming man on the move Josh Hawley, who’s gone hard-core MAGA to keep it.
Blunt joins Planet Earth conservatives Pat Toomey, Rob Portman, Richard Shelby, and Richard Burr, who had a good chance of a challenge from the fringe right egged on by The Sorest Loser ever, who might feel slighted (two of the five did vote to impeach in January), or find a new sycophant he likes better, or both. The party is waiting for Sens. Charles Grassley and Ron Johnson to announce their intentions. If Ron "Anon," who is not from our planet, leaves, imagine how far out those competing to replace him will be.
Incumbency isn't enough to ward off flukes but it helps. The more senators who retire, the more magic McConnell's going to have to harness to prevail, and the more he has to do to prevent the ascension of mini-Marjorie Taylor Greenes. The one currently serving in the House endorsed the proposal that Nancy Pelosi be removed “by a bullet to the head.”
McConnell had something to work with during the Obama years, like the threat of not being able to keep the doctor you liked and paying through the nose for the insult. Republicans will try, but making Biden dangerous—unlike his rescue German shepherd, banished temporarily for biting security staff—is going to be hard. A radical socialist he is not.
McConnell’s been through bad primaries before when the tried, the true, and the informed were challenged by the poorly informed, the far-right religious, and the just plain wacky. During the 2010 midterms, McConnell could taste getting his big office with a balcony large enough to host cigar parties back when then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was considered a dead man walking. That was until former Nevada State Assemblywoman Sharron Angle launched a frivolous challenge to a formidable opponent, Sue Lowden, the chair of the party and former statewide official who held a consistent double-digit lead.
Angle was a Scientology sympathizer, if not member, believed Sharia law was taking over Dearborn, Michigan, and was so afraid of the press she had staff say “it’s time to water the plants” to signal when a reporter was approaching. But Angle won the primary. In the general, a group of Nevada Republicans supported Reid, and Angle sank like a stone, down 18 points at one time. Leader Reid would haunt McConnell until the Senate flipped in 2015 and he retired in 2017.
McConnell’s worst nightmare in 2010 was Christine O'Donnell, who ran an ad declaring she was not a witch in a special election to replace then-Vice President Biden. After beating former governor and nine-term GOP congressman Mike Castle in the primary, who was favored to take the seat back from Democrats, it came out that her resume was fiction, but liens on her property for unpaid taxes were not. She couldn't answer questions about the Constitution an alert sixth grader could ace. Even for a family values party her crusade for abstinence was too much. She lost to Chris Coons by 17 points.
O'Donnell was the eighth Tea Party-backed candidate to win a primary that year. Among them was Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock. He got it into his head that it was time for Sen. Richard Lugar to go. Although nominated for a Nobel Prize, Lugar was a modest member from a time gone by, casting 12,000 votes over 35 years quietly, lunching on an apple and yogurt most days.
Lugar gave Mourdock an opening when he took his frugality one bridge too far by selling his residence among the Hoosiers for a place across the Potomac in suburban Virginia. Having your residence where you serve is allowed in Indiana, but Mourdock got a lot of populist mileage out of painting Lugar as a Washington elitist gone native. Lugar's reputation for bipartisanship was the final nail in the coffin.
As the nominee, Mourdock was too far right on issues like Social Security, but it was defending his strict position on abortion by contending that a pregnancy resulting from rape is "something that God intended to happen"—a precursor of nutso nominee Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin, who cost Republicans a safe seat in Missouri in 2012—that ended his hopes. Indiana sent Democrat Joe Donnelly to Washington.
It's surprising that Blunt, a non-practicing moderate since Trump arrived, is retiring when he managed to avoid Trump's wrath for four years. Officials at the NRSC, the campaign arm of the GOP Senate caucus, must be tearing their hair out. How hard could it be for Blunt to leave his soul in hock a few more years like the rest of them and win one for the team?
For a moment post-Trump acquittal, it looked like McConnell might reclaim his soul. After his "no" vote on constitutional grounds, McConnell had a moment of conscience and held Trump morally responsible for what happened on Jan. 6. But soon after, as Trump made it clear he would not be purged, McConnell conceded that if the person who incited a mob to overthrow the government were to be the candidate in 2024, he would support him. His post-impeachment speech was another hollow gesture by a man who's made a career out of them.
For McConnell, it will be a sad day when he says goodbye to his lieutenant Blunt and sadder still as he sees the office with the best view in Washington possibly leave with him. McConnell has re-upped. He's taken out a second mortgage on his soul, for next year and beyond. Maybe that's why Blunt is retiring.